THE SUMMER SCOOP: Senior pays her own way to teach English in rural China

This is the 10th installment of a series on internships, jobs and classes that students took this summer.

Senior Chardonnay Needler taught English as a foreign teacher at Mingshi Mingxiao, a school in Dalian, China, for the first three weeks of July, and traveled to Qingdao and stayed with Zihao Sui, ‘18, for the last week.  

Q: Why did you choose this internship?

A: I did this experience for two reasons.

First, to see if I would actually be able to teach.

As an American, and especially as a white American, it’s super easy to get jobs teaching English in all of Eastern Asia. A lot of schools don’t want Asian teachers because they want the teachers to speak “real” English.

I wanted to see if I would enjoy (teaching), too, looking into college and even post-college options, to see if I’m ready for the real world.

Second, I was craving to get back to China. The only place where I could reasonably travel by myself would be China, because I know the language and it isn’t too expensive.

Q: How did you get the internship?

A: I did a lot of research for a long time. I had another program lined up that would be more preparatory.

The first program in Shanghai lasted four weeks, and would help me study for the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), or the Chinese Proficiency Test, an international standardized exam which tests and rates Chinese language proficiency – which I am hoping to take this year. I would do HSK in the morning and teach in the afternoon.

However, all the really nice programs, like that one, require you to pay a lot of money in order to study and work, so that didn’t work out.

In the end, I found the program through a large container website that listed programs in different, often impoverished, areas of China.

From there, I submitted a few video interviews as well as a resume, which was stressful because after I had submitted my interviews I didn’t hear back for a week.

After I finally got in, I communicated directly with the owner of the school.

Q: What were your responsibilities as a teacher?

A:I was there from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and lunch and breakfast were both an hour long.

There was time to go outside with the kids and play outside.

It was summer school, so a lot of it was helping them memorize words. Also, we didn’t have tests, but they had to show improvement in their oral quizzes.

There was also supplemental stuff that I would provide. I made lesson plans for things like colors, comparative adjectives, family, days of the week. It was more than vocabulary lists; there were also worksheets.

Most of the time there were around eight kids, but one time I had 16 kids. It changed all the time because it’s a cram school, so parents send their kids there whenever they want, not every day.

I also had to be with the kids and entertain them. That, I think, was the worst part because they were kind of young, like 10 and 11, so I had to be fun. I couldn’t just be like, “OK, kids, let’s do 1000 grammar points and then do vocabulary.”

Q: Did you teach alone?

A: Because I am a foreign teacher, I still had an assistant teacher in the class with me. My assistant teacher was studying French in college, and I actually spent my breaks helping her learn French.

That was very interesting because I thought I couldn’t be further away from anything French-related!

Some of the subjects also had two teachers. I think there were about six other teachers.

Q: What made you choose teaching English over other subjects?

A: I could teach only English, especially because I was not the main teacher; I was the foreign assistant.

I was just volunteering and offering services that the Chinese teachers could not provide, like a native accent and better grips on the grammar. I could not have taught physics, chemistry or math.

Q: How did you feel on your first day?

A: Honestly, kind of overwhelmed.

It was so hard to get the kids’ attention and keep it. They’d have rapt attention for a solid 10 minutes and then just lose it.

And it was tiring for me. It takes a lot to make me tired, but kids did it. I think after struggling with blank faces after explaining the months of the year (my first lesson), even after repeating the word and then translating it, even after writing it, saying it, getting them to come up, the majority just didn’t retain the information.

I’d say something in English, and they would not reply or would reply in such a way that I knew that they didn’t understand what I said, so then it was just translating.

I’d repeat exactly what I said in Mandarin and get a Mandarin response; then I would say what word it was in English, but it would still be hard for them. Then I knew I couldn’t just use the whiteboard.

This wasn’t like a school presentation where you just wing it. If I wanted the kids to learn, I had to put some work into it.

Q: Were there other any challenges in teaching?

First, the English textbooks that the students used were obviously written by Chinese people. No one speaks like that.

For example, they overused the word “the” a lot. One of the example sentences would read “What will do you the weekend?”

Furthermore, the material was all made for British English, and it tells them how they’re supposed to be pronouncing the words, but I am American.

It wasn’t difficult for me (to change my accent,) but I would tell them, “I’m American, so I pronounce it differently.”

Some of the kids actually preferred the way I pronounced it because English and Mandarin both have a rhotic “r”, and British English doesn’t have that.

Also, my school was in a very agricultural part of town called Jinzhou, about 20 minutes from where I was living. People there don’t know English well, so they wanted me to be able to conduct simple lessons in Mandarin, and I couldn’t do very complex stuff.

Q: What was the most difficult lesson for the kids?

A: When I tried to teach time. The whole concept of quarter past versus quarter to caused so much trouble. I had to reteach it three or four times.

In Mandarin, people don’t use phrases like “quarter past” or “quarter to” that are common in English (although they do use “half past.” People just say the time, because the amount of syllables in numbers, even large ones, is never that much.

Prepositions were also difficult  because there is little translatability between prepositions in English and Mandarin.

Q: Were you paid?

A: I wasn’t paid, but I did have to pay a small fee for the meals I received twice a day.

Q: How were those meals?

A: Simple, but amazing. Everything was made by this sweet old lady. Her bread was great, and this dish she made with meat and rice was fantastic.

The food in general was much cheaper and fresher than in America, but it still took some getting used to.

It wasn’t bad, but when I went to China last year, I went more as a tourist, and now I wasn’t going to fancy restaurants all the time.

Still, the street food there was the most amazing thing ever. I had these fat oysters, six for 10 yuan, about  $1.50. You could never get that here!

Also, it was very humid and hot, but I had a convenient store near me that sold amazing ice cream bars for less than a penny in U.S. dollars.

Q: What was your favorite part?

A: Talking several nights in a row to a family of Uyghurs (a Turkic ethnic group who live in East and Central Asia) living in Dalian at the time.

I had read a few articles about what was happening to Uyghurs in China, but this was so different. I got to learn about their language, like how to count to 10, the names of dishes, and simple greetings.

I even had one of their handmade pancakes. The food in general was great because it combined the spices of the Middle East with traditional Chinese dishes.

Also I got to talk to their boss, because the Uyghur man’s Mandarin was terrible, which also surprised me, because, I was talking to someone with a Chinese passport, a Chinese identity, and yet they couldn’t speak proper Mandarin.

It actually made me (start questioning) between two majors (in college) because it was one of the most interesting conversations I had ever had.  

As far as teaching goes, I loved making worksheets because it was a way to prevent boredom for the kids, and I enjoyed teaching French to my assistant.

And I liked the kids. I liked helping them enjoy the English language, and I liked talking to the kids one-on-one. I hope I made a positive impact on their lives and showed them that a so-called “useless” subject can be fun and worth studying.

Furthermore, it felt good to pay the ticket with my own money, and it felt good to do this.

I had been preparing the whole year to do this big thing, and even though the teaching experience looked better on a resume than the actual experience was, it humbled me and showed me what I was good at and not good at, where my passion lies.

Q: What was your least favorite part?

A: A pair of kids would get in fights all the time.

Also, kids don’t have filters. One kid, as I was helping him with his vocabulary, stared up at my face and asked, “Why do you have so much acne?”

Another one my least favorite parts was this one song, which is the Chinese version of “The Wheels on the Bus,” but with British influences. It was called “London Eye.”

There was this one kid who loved that song and who would always ask me, “Teacher, teacher, play London Eye.” He wouldn’t stop asking for it and singing it, which drove me insane.

Similar things would happen when I tried to use songs to make English more fun, like “Yankee Doodle” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”

Later, though, I was told by one of the physics teachers that the teachers were sure [this student] had some kind of mental disorder.

He actually wanted to learn, and after having more time with him one-on-one, I realized that he was exhibiting signs of something like Aspergers, and in China, especially rural China, those illnesses are completely ignored.

Rural China is not developed; these families don’t have the time or the money to be concerned with problems like mental illnesses. If I were in Beijing or another highly developed area, it might be different.

Teaching also just takes a lot out of you, especially if there are kids that just don’t get it. I’d rather be sharing ideas than just give them an idea and have them absorb it, but that isn’t always possible at all levels. Kids are different.

That’s why I liked teaching French to my assistant so much; I could have adult conversations with her about grammar and spelling, and she could also help me with my Mandarin.

I definitely gained a lot of respect for my teachers.

Q: Was it difficult to be so far away?

A: No, not at all. It was difficult coming back. I don’t feel like I’m away from home when I’m in China. It was nice sleeping in my own bed, though, because Chinese beds aren’t the most comfortable.

Also, the shower in my apartment (provided to me through the program; I lived in the same building as the owner of the school) was completely open, with no curtain, division or change in floor in the bathroom.

Q: Were there any other big cultural differences you noticed?

A: Last time I went to China I was told not to talk about politics at all, but this time I was a lot more open.

I was able to learn more about the diversity in China, too.

And in the country, it was a lot more novel that I was a foreigner. The kids would ask me a lot of questions about it. For example, one kid saw that I had blue eyes and asked if all Americans had blue eyes. I wasn’t sure if they were trying to be funny or not, but it was kind of crazy.

Also, because it was more of a rural, traditional city with less foreign influence, the male and female  roles were a bit more pronounced. My teaching assistant. for example, had to be a girl.

And while most people were very easy to understand, some elderly people had a thick Northern accent.

Still, I didn’t really get much of a culture shock because I believe that humanity is universal.

Q: What did you do in your spare time?  

A: During my breaks I would occasionally visit the local bookstore, where I befriended the bookkeeper.

She was actually very aware, politically, of everything that was going on.

She talked about how the propaganda was meaningless to her.

She was also a Buddhist and knew a lot about astrology – she accurately guessed my favorite color and (Chinese) zodiac sign after a two-minute conversation.

Q: Was it hard for you to act as a teacher?

A: No. I fit into the role really easily, especially because I had been teaching at Weekly Breakthrough. I’ve also tutored French and math before. I was confident in what I was teaching, and I knew how to do my own thing.

Q: Did you need to undergo any training?

A: Yes, but it was in the U.S., when I talked to the headmaster of the school. She wanted to make I could use pictures and told me what the classes and textbook were like. She also provided me with examples of what teachers had done in the past, including what she did back when she used to teach.

Q: Has this experience impacted your possible career choices?

A: I realized that there is a difference between having a passion for something and teaching it.

I am not great at teaching. This experience humbled me because it was really frustrating. It was frustrating getting them to focus in class and speak proper English and Mandarin.

Q: Would you recommend this internship?

A: I would recommend it, hell yes.

Teaching wasn’t my main thing, but it taught me a lot about patience and other qualities that I am lacking in. It helped me take a step back and be more appreciative, both of my teachers and of my situation.

If you ever have the opportunity to teach anywhere, whether you are familiar with the language, people and customs or not, do it – even if it seems like the last thing you would want to do.

Q: What are some of the most important things you learned through this experience?

A: When I was thinking about my summer plans, I really wanted to do a study program, but I was forced to do something different because of my budget.

Ultimately, I think this was much better because it was real. Do something where you have to stand up for yourself because the amount of independence you get travelling at a young age is just fantastic. It made me feel like I was ready for adulthood and forced me to be more responsible.

Don’t ever disregard an opportunity because it isn’t your number one. I’ve made really good friends. Don’t let the prestige of something influence you – find your own path.

This was real. This was eye-opening. And this was something that I will definitely remember for the rest of my life.  

Also, you have to keep on going if you want to achieve something. If you find an obstacle, you have to do more research, contact more people and, eventually, you will find something.

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